In June 2021, while commemorating the centennial of the brutal attack on Black Wall Street during the Tulsa Race Massacre in Oklahoma, President Joe Biden connected the past to the present, saying, “Terrorism from white supremacy is the most lethal threat to the homeland today — not ISIS, not al Qaeda, white supremacists.” Since then, however, the Biden administration has done little to combat this threat. While the creation of a unit focused on domestic terrorism in the Department of Justice and the recent passage of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act are important developments, they still fall short of tackling the persistent and growing threat of white supremacy.
On Saturday, less than a year after Biden correctly identified the country’s most lethal threat, a white supremacist allegedly gunned down 10 people and injured three others at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York. Most of the victims were Black. Authorities say the shooter, an 18-year-old from Conklin, New York, made his intentions clear in a hate-filled "manifesto" posted two days prior to the shooting. In the manifesto, which included dozens of pages of racist and antisemitic images, the shooter expressed disdain for Black people and other people of color.
Promoting the “great replacement theory,” a racist belief widely embraced by the far right, the gunman’s manifesto reveals how deeply embedded racism is in American society. Since 2014, hate crimes in the United States have been on the rise and, under the Trump administration, such acts of hate and violence reached record levels.
The shooting in Buffalo falls within a long and disturbing pattern of white supremacist violence that has shaped American life and culture for centuries.
Historian Kidada Williams, co-editor of "Charleston Syllabus: Readings on Race, Racism and Racial Violence," notes that violence and terror were the primary means by which white Americans maintained power and control after the Civil War. “Many whites who were looking to preserve white social, economic, and political supremacy over blacks after the war typically used terror to achieve their objectives,” Williams argued in Slate shortly after 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and murdered nine Black people.
Hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan — established in 1865 — terrorized Black people and other marginalized groups across the United States. As Black people obtained education and some political power during the era of Reconstruction, white vigilantes lynched hundreds of Black people across the South. According to the NAACP, an estimated 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States from 1882 to 1968.
Black communities and institutions continued to be targeted by white supremacists during the civil rights movement. One of the most infamous attacks took place on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, when KKK members planted a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The bombing killed four Black girls — Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley — and injured more than 20 others.
The white supremacist violence and terror Black people faced were not confined to the southern region. And the terror certainly did not end with the passage of landmark civil rights legislation during the 1960s. Although the number of hate groups in the United States has ebbed and flowed over the last 60 years, white supremacist ideas such as the “great replacement theory” remain a fixture in American life and culture.
In recent years, what many Americans viewed solely as fringe ideas have in fact begun to dominate mainstream politics. These racist ideas and acts of violence, are, as historian Kathleen Belew argued on PBS, “all part of the organized white power movement.” According to Belew, the author of "Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America," “It is a movement that is at war on our democracy and on these targeted communities in ways that are with us in inescapable ways.”
This war on democracy was on full display when Roof walked into the Emanuel A.M.E church. After sitting with church attendees as they prayed and read from the Bible, Roof announced that he was “here to kill Black people.” Much like the Buffalo shooter, Roof had written a manifesto — filled with white nationalist and white supremacist ramblings that blamed African Americans, Latinos and other people of color for a myriad of societal issues.
The same violence, hate and terror that led to the Charleston massacre provided the impetus for the recent Buffalo shooting. And this violence, hate and terror are not aberrations or somehow disconnected from American life and culture. The shooting in Buffalo, like the Charleston massacre, the 2019 shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, and far too many others, are expressions of the deep-seated violence, hate and white supremacist terror that are core to American society.
Not surprisingly, white supremacist ideas have only increased in circulation since the Charleston massacre, and the organized white power movement has experienced significant growth over the last few years as several political leaders, including former President Donald Trump, escalated white supremacist rhetoric. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of active hate groups in the United States increased in 2015 from 784 to 892 and remained “well above 800 for the duration of the Trump presidency.”
In 2021, the center documented 72 active Proud Boys chapters across the United States — an increase from 43 chapters the year before. Far beyond the growth of certain hate groups, the center points to how extremist ideas now “operate more openly in the political mainstream.”
The mass shooting in Buffalo on Saturday underscores the urgent need for the Biden administration to put in action a strategy to confront what he himself called the country’s “most lethal threat.” Without swift and strong federal action — including stricter gun policies and the passage of hate speech laws — those who embrace white supremacy as an ideology will continue to unleash violence and terror in our communities.